(Video) Neal Shapiro, WNET President and CEO, Reflects on Thirteen’s Fiftieth

When the independent station taking up space at Channel 13 became a non-commercial station, history was made. It was September 16, 1962. CBS News icon Edward R. Murrow introduced new WNDT (New Dimensions in Television), thus unveiling New York City’s first educational TV station. (Watch the video clip below)

Murrow opened the initial telecast saying, “Tonight, you join me on a great adventure… This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.”

So it is only fitting that FishbowlNY honors the remarkable achievement with a series of articles commemorating the 50th anniversary of Channel 13.

FishbowlNY recently sat down with WNET president and CEO, Neal Shapiro.

While searching for clips to use in an anniversary documentary/retrospective, Shapiro says Channel 13, which became WNET in 1970, felt like more like a museum, unearthing station artifacts.

“Fifty years ago, the station was just starting and having to reinvent everything,” Shapiro tells FishbowlNY. “Fifty years later, we’re still doing some of that because in the process of discovering our history in turns out things were stored sort of haphazardly. The mediums are different…much of it uncatalogued.”

Shapiro became WNET’s sixth president and CEO in 2007, after many years at NBC and ABC.

Unlike his long commercial television career, Shapiro recognizes public TV is all about getting “Viewers Like You” for its revenue streams.

“Our big goal is to increase awareness and remind people about what our last 50 [years] have been like and where we want to,” Shapiro says. “We have a goal–we’d like to get 50,000 new members.”

WNET used the anniversary as another opportunity to say thanks to its loyal subscribers.

“We would not be here and would not be on the air to this day without the support of the public,” Shapiro admits.

The former NBC News president, Shapiro acknowledges getting a pit in his stomach twice a day when ratings were released. It’s not the case, though, at PBS, where Nielsen numbers take a backseat to quality programming.

“What are programs we think are important?” Shapiro asks. “What will resonate with the audience?”

He says that is especially true today, as WNET acts as a “counterbalance” to the myriad of reality-based TV shows.

“It’s empty calories. You watch it and it’s over,” Shapiro contends. “I don’t think people are still having big discussions about season one of Survivor and how it changed their lives. But shows in public television, people do have those discussions. People remember Bill Moyers’ series from years ago. They’re so important to them.”

Those people have relied on Thirteen to fill a broadcasting void with programs about history, arts, and culture. With that mind, WNET used its milestone to ask viewers for feedback, what the shows meant to them. One longtime member grew up in humble circumstances in the Bronx. Her family never had the time, working several jobs, or money, to take the woman.

“Thanks to Thirteen, I had a front row seat and I’m a professional dancer,” Shapiro recalls the woman’s thoughts. “I found my life’s calling by watching public television.”

More widespread, Shapiro points to the millions of preschoolers (and illiterate adults) that learned to read and write by watching Sesame Street.

Another big transition for Shapiro moving to WNET was having an education department, something he never had in commercial television.

“This department’s goal is to make sure we take all the material we have and we integrate into free material for classes,” Shapiro says. “We’re an extension of America’s classroom.”

They treat that responsibility with gravitas, even more so because schools today are increasingly axing arts and culture from their curriculum. That strong committment to arts and culture was not prevalent on Thirteen in the pre-Shapiro era.